New Crop of Growers Sprouts as Southland Keeps Crowding Out Traditional Agriculture : URBAN FARMING

Times Staff Writer

Leslie Labowitz-Starus is a performance artist whose latest work has become her life and her livelihood: Starus is an urban farmer, whose Sproutime farm, wedged into a greenhouse filling a Venice backyard, produces more than 3,000 pounds a week of 15 kinds of sprouts.

Sproutime, with not so much as a single row to hoe, is the ultimate in urban farms.

Farther north, under Department of Water & Power lines in Tarzana, Andrea Crawford and her husband, Dennis Peitso, farm three acres that produce nearly 50 varieties of lettuce and 25 spicy salad plants. Their Produce Gardens--harvested by hand daily by a year-round staff of 10--supply supremely fresh tossables for most of Los Angeles' finest restaurants and, more recently, their counterparts in Chicago, Boston, New York and other distant cities.

Sproutime and the Produce Gardens are by no means the last of Los Angeles' growers. Los Angeles County, with agricultural production valued at $254.5 million, still ranks 16th among the state's 36 agricultural counties, but its crop value has declined from nearly $294 million in 1985. But, inevitably, the population pressures reflected in the county's proliferation of cities--84 now dot the county with its 7.9 million inhabitants--have squeezed out the once-sprawling citrus groves and vineyards and pushed dairy operations out of the county to the east and north.

Diverse Backgrounds

So it may come as a surprise to present residents that agriculture remains a major industry. Indeed, Los Angeles County is the nation's leading producer of ornamental trees and shrubs and bedding plants and a leading supplier of flowers and foliage plants--all high-value, intensively grown crops, often planted on marginal land or contributing a green belt under power lines.

Sproutime and Produce Gardens thus fit the contemporary mold of Los Angeles County agriculture in specializing in high-value, intensively grown crops. Significantly, both were started within the city itself and in this decade.

While Starus came to farming from an artistic background, Andrea Crawford had spent a decade in the restaurant business when she began working with Alice Waters, chef and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Crawford began growing salad fixings in Waters' backyard to supply the restaurant.

"One of the great ways you can judge a restaurant is to order a salad," Crawford said. Having worked closely with Waters she saw a gap--and a business opportunity--between what chefs require and what is available through conventional produce channels.

She and her husband still maintain three gardens in the Bay Area. But 2 1/2 years ago they moved south, bringing half an acre of Encino weed patch into cultivation and later adding three acres under DWP lines in Tarzana.

This year, Crawford and Peitso incorporated their partnership as Kenter Canyon Farms and expanded their customer base nationwide, though still doing business locally as the Produce Gardens. When chefs phone in their daily orders, collected from a message machine at 7 a.m. every morning, they are assured that what they want will be custom harvested and shipped that same day via Federal Express.

High Production

Their full-time crew of 10 practices highly intensive cultivation, producing on 3.5 acres what normally grows on 12, she said. The trick is to use deep furrows, adapted to the lettuces and spicy plants she grows; plants cover virtually every arable inch of land.

"We use no machinery at all, and no chemicals or pesticides," she said. "We stagger everything and keep it planted year-round and in enough quantity to meet demand. Restaurants want two things: reliability and quantity.

"That's why we put such a priority on consistent yield and product quality," Crawford said. "After all, we have some of the most demanding clients in the world."

Produce Gardens looks like something out of Fresno County--the nation's leading farm county--in comparison to Sproutime, which occupies maybe 1,500 square feet behind a strip shopping center in Venice. Despite its small size, Sproutime makes Leslie Labowitz-Starus Los Angeles' principal commercial sprouts grower, producing about 3,000 pounds of produce a week.

"She provides commodities that people, particularly on the West Side, are increasingly interested in--natural foods, more nourishing foods, foods as chemically free as possible," said Vance Merrill-Corum, a Los Angeles-based direct-marketing specialist with the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

Starus and her four full-time employees grow all but a few of their crops in water, the rest in containers. The alfalfa sprouts, mung beans, wheat grass, sunflower greens and other varieties take from three days to two weeks to grow to marketable size, when Santos Morales and Kinny Jung quickly snip the shoots and package them as colorful, nutritious and the freshest of ready-to-eat salads.

To peddle her crops at 10 of the county's 25 farmers markets, Starus also employs three part-time sellers--at times counting among them writers, artists and actors who like the flexible hours and, often, the "performance" of selling to the broad cross section of the population such outlets tend to draw. (For a while Starus employed two musicians. "But their record was a success and they had to leave on tour," she said. "They cried. They said it was like leaving a family--and it is.")

Sproutime also serves such nearby restaurants as Chinois on Main and the Rose Cafe, health-food specialty stores like Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Ranch Markets, the produce-oriented Irvine Ranch Farmers Market and some West Side outlets of Vons, Mayfair and the Boys supermarkets. A favorite customer, Starus said, is the Murrieta Hot Springs resort in Riverside County, which features an all-sprouts salad bar.

"Everybody loves sprouts!" she said. "After all, they're germinated seeds--a life force. That was very attractive to me--as a food, an art form and a statement."

The sprouts, she added, only cost about 10 cents an ounce to produce, and while low wholesale prices make growing the best-known alfalfa sprouts marginally profitable at best, other varieties command a better price; sunflower greens, for example, wholesale for $3 a pound.

As a performing artist who strives to reflect her art in her life, Starus began by creating "environments" or tiny, living gardens of sprouts. Before she knew it, she said, she found herself growing the sprouts to sell for themselves.

Ready-to-Eat Art Form

"I started this as a form of healing for myself," she said. "The potential for me to make it as a business was greater than the potential for me to make money from it as an art form, and, the fact was, I had to make a living."

Starus considers Sproutime to be a work of interactive art whose participants include her co-workers and her customers. "I'm not this artist sitting in my studio," she said.

Moreover, she is about to move her operation to a larger site near downtown Inglewood, where she expects to triple production--to about 10,000 pounds a week--and open a retail outlet. Such sites in urban areas are increasingly rare--and to the community's loss, she believes. Even in the most dense urban setting, some space should be set aside for growing crops, she said, "to bring the life force into the city and humanize it a little bit."

"That," she added, "is what urban farmers are all about."

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